A New Course in the Fumigant Discussion

It has become clear to me after the last few months that those of us in the Ag industry have it wrong when it comes to fumigants. No, not with respect to their use, but in how we address concerns about them from the general public. I think it is easy to see that public concern has not abated, which tells us that our strategy has not been working. Even worse, I think we have actually amplified public concern. So let’s talk about where we have fallen short, and how we can change it.

 

Traditionally, the industry response to public outcry over fumigants has had two prongs. Both of these I will argue have done no good, and both have actually made matters worse for us.

 

The first traditional response has been to downplay the risks. We tell people  that there are many products and activities that carry more risk than fumigant use. This has not worked for the simple reason that public outcry over fumigants is an expression of anxiety. If we simply add more anxieties to the list, can we really expect concerns to abate? It has made matters worse for us by reinforcing a negative perception that farmers are ignorant of the risks associated with chemical usage, or simply don’t care. Feeding this perception has cost us dearly.

 

The second tactic that our industry has employed is to plead poverty. We say we must be able to use them or we will go out of business. This has not worked in part because it is a case of “crying wolf.”  Frankly we have used this argument a lot over the years, but we are still here. There isn’t a lot of perceived credibility in it anymore. It also hasn’t worked because of the anxiety issue discussed above. Will a parent place our business interests ahead of the health of their child? Of course not. We need to recognize that the poverty plea will always fall on deaf ears. We further hurt our case with this line of attack by continuing to undermine confidence in our industry. Would you trust a financially shaky, desperate industry to use a chemical wisely? Or would you fear that they would have every incentive to abuse the material and cut corners on safety?

 

What must we do? Firstly, we have to reject the old arguments that have failed us. Secondly, we must clearly acknowledge and accept responsibility for the risks associated with these chemicals. If we do not speak clearly and reasonably about legitimate concerns, the public will listen to those who speak loudly and unreasonably instead. We need to make the case that we understand fumigant safety better than anyone; that we do not shy away from oversight because we know that the standards we set for ourselves are so high. We need to show that we have the resources, both financial and personal, to handle the use of the materials in a responsible fashion. In short, we must earn the community’s trust, and continually reinforce that trust.

 

Some would ask if this isn’t just a PR gimmick. I can’t deny that public relations are a factor here, but I truly believe that what I am describing is a more accurate depiction of agriculture than the one that we have helped inflict on ourselves.  We can’t allow ourselves to be seen as cowboys on a shoestring budget using these chemicals recklessly. Only by holding ourselves to the very highest standards of caution, prudence, and professionalism will retain the right to use these materials.

 

It is as simple as that.

Common Ground?

A few thoughts that might provide a “strawman” for the Ventura AFA’s discussion on fumigants (Not in any particular order):

Organic and sustainable are not the same thing. While any use of chemicals, including fumigants, is not inherently unsustainable, lower usage will tend to enhance sustainability.

AFA values clarity and consistency in applicable pesticide regulations, but we recognize that current regulations, labels and science will likely change with experience and new data. Our understanding and awareness of certain impacts will evolve over time, and our best practices will co-evolve with them.

 Sustainability is based on best efforts to reduce or eliminate secondary impacts from their use, and consideration for alternative methods if practicable. Further, sustainability is not an easily identifiable end point: it is a process of continuous improvement.

Legal action may be appropriate as a means of getting redress from bad actors or pressuring regulatory agencies and policymakers, but AFA calls for safe harbor for responsible growers using approved legal practices.

AFA recognizes that all human activities carry with them certain impacts, and this includes agriculture, both conventional and organic. The challenge before us as stewards is to continually seek to minimize our impacts while still deriving the needed benefits.

Conventional agriculture is not something categorically wrong that we should seek to eliminate completely, such as violence, or racism, or disease. While seeking to reduce negative impacts, we must also recognize the positive benefits that society has received from agriculture.

The bundle of technologies and practices called the “Green Revolution”, were generally accepted as a complete package during the “Better Living through Chemistry” era of the 1950’s. That experience has shown that some of these have had differing impacts and levels of effectiveness. The task at hand is to “unbundle” these technologies and practices and keep the best, rather than reject the whole package.

Fumigants (as with many other chemicals) are potentially harmful materials that require training, professionalism, concern for others, and strict compliance with applicable guidelines to be used responsibly. AFA does not endorse careless, sloppy, or illegal usage of restricted materials.

Encourage further research and extension in the areas of alternative applications methods, materials, and cropping strategies.

In order to allow growers more choices of economically viable crops and practices, AFA should continue to promote a greater diversity of markets and distribution channels and support mechanisms such as land trusts and  conservation easements to ease economic pressures that limit farmer’s options.